Rating: 4.25/5While trying to explain the plot of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s newest release The Turin Horse to one of my roommates, the words coming out of my mouth sounded something like this: “So, this one time Friedrich Nietzsche met a horse that wouldn’t move. It caused him to have a nervous breakdown that would lead to his death. So… this movie is about that horse. Kinda. It’s mostly about poor people eating potatoes.” Which is kind of true, but leaves out all the depth and actual importance of a film that has more to say than simple descriptions would have you believe.
Anyway, it’s not really about the horse. To Tarr, the horse and its historical significance are more of a jumping-off point for the director’s actual interests, namely making a meditation on the very act of existence. After an opening narration explains the historical context, we cut to an interminably long take of the horse carrying one of our main characters down a long road in the middle of a windstorm. Watching a horse struggle through the wind for a few minutes is a key experience for the purposes of watching this film, as it teaches us how to do so: patiently, with our brains always working to decipher the importance of the image before us.
Our two main non-equine characters in The Turin Horse are the older man who owns the horse and his daughter; together, they just simply live over the course of six days. The pair trudge through a bare bones lifestyle that would make us go insane in our Netflix-poisoned, ADD daily lives: she boils two potatoes, one for each of them, and they eat it. Sometimes he’ll sprinkle some salt on the meal. She dresses and undresses him, they go to bed, they wake up, she fetches water from the well, boils some more potatoes and the cycle repeats.
It’s pure existence, and as the windstorm rages and the trees appear bare in the distance, it’s hard not to compare the mise en scene with Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s existential play about a pair of hobos in a ruined wasteland with little else around but a tree, some occasional interlopers and pockets full of vegetables. The Turin Horse seems to have similar concerns in mind, but without Beckett’s jaunty, decadent window dressing. Instead Tarr’s production is all about stripping human existence down to its essentials: eating, sleeping and enduring the outside forces that intensify one’s despair.
The takes are long and the dialogue is sparse. For the most part, our characters speak in a functional manner. Save the narration, the first line of dialogue in the film is, “It’s ready,” which happens about 20 minutes into the proceedings. In the place of set pieces are occasional, fairly long dialogue scenes, like one where the daughter finds a tome with some curious passages in it. By the film’s standards, these scenes, few of them as there are, practically become high-octane action sequences, as they involve such non-utilitarian elements like books and other people. While I joke about how they disrupt the quiet meditativeness, they break up the “monotony” of the film just like how a visit from a friend breaks up the repetition of going to work, going to sleep and getting back up again. It distracts from the drudgery, albeit briefly.
At this point, either you’re going to rush to see it or write off The Turin Horse as the kind of boring, low-impact movie even you could make. But what separates Béla Tarr from any old plebeian with a camera is not just intent; paired with cinematographer Fred Kelemen, the two capture some astonishing black and white images in their pursuit of pure cinema. The takes may be long, but they’re often so well composed that true appreciators of film will be glad to spend the extra time in one camera position for what feels like minutes, even as it examines the detail of a wooden door or a person looking out of a window.
It’s easy to make cheap mocking jokes when faced with a film about a horse full of long uninterrupted takes. Instead of echoing basic groundling sentiment, I’m going to say this: The Turin Horse is a special kind of treat for viewers who are really invested in the medium beyond the passive ease of enjoying well-told stories – this is a film for those open-minded cinephiles who won’t resist a movie as it takes you where it wants, not where you want it to go.